VIEWSrnElection DayrnA Means of State Controlrnby Robert WeissbergrnInterpreting elections is a national spectator sport, offering asrnmany “meanings” as there arc board-certified spin doctors.rnNevertheless, all of these disparate revelations, insights, andrnbrilliant interpretations share a common, unthinking vision:rnelections, despite their divisive, contentious character, exist tornfacilitate citizen power over government. Whether ineptly orrnadeptly, honestly or dishonestly, government is supposed to bernsubjugated via mass electoral participation. This is, it might bernsaid, The Great Democratic Belief of Popular Sovereignty.rnLess understood, though hardly less significant, is that controlrnflows the opposite way: elections permit government’s effectivernmanagement of its own citizens. The modern state’srnauthority, its vast extractive capacity, its ability to wage war, itsrnever-growing power to regulate our lives, requires constant reinvigorationrnvia the ballot box. Moreover, and even less obvious,rnproperiy administered elections promote cohcsiveness, not acrimoniousrndivision. Indeed, this periodic reaffirmation of thernpolitical covenant may be elections’ paramount purpose, relegatingrnthe actual choice among Tweedledee, Tweedledum candidatesrnto mere historical details. Like the atmosphere, thisrnphenomenon appears nearly invisible, escaping both popularrnattention and scrutiny from talking-head television pundits.rnEven scholars, those investigating civic matters of profound obscurity,rnwith few exceptions (particularly my former colleague,rnBen Ginsberg) are neglectful. Put succinctly, marching citizensrnoff to vote—independent of their choice—is a form ofrnconscription to the political status quo. Election day, likernRobert Weissberg is a professor of political science at the Universityrnoflllmois at IJrbana-Champaign.rnChristmas or Yom Kippur, is the high holiday, a day of homagernand reaffirmation, in the creed of the modern state.rnThose at the Constitutional Convention well understoodrnthis conscriptive function. Though the Founders arc now fashionablyrnbranded as unrepresentative elitists who distrusted therndowntrodden masses and oppressed women and toilers ofrncolor, what they never doubted was the political usefulness ofrnelections. James Wilson and Elbridge Gerry openh’ acknowledgedrnthat a vigorous federal government required extensivernpopular consent, freely given by the ballot. Voters could not,rnand should not, guide policy, but without periodic popular authorization,rnhow could the national government efficiently collectrntaxes, compel obedience to its laws, solicit military recruitsrnor gain loyalty? This is what “no taxation without representation”rnis all about: the ritual of consent. Elections, howeverrntumultuous or corrupt, bestowed legitimacy far better andrnmore cheaply than brute force, bribery, appeals to divine right,rnor any alternative. Opposition to the direct elections of senators,rnpredictably, arose from state sovereignty advocates—allowingrncitizens to vote for such a prominent national officerncould only enhance centralism.rnElections as a means of state aggrandizement, not popularrncontrol of government, was clearly grasped during the 19thrncentury’s march toward universal suffrage. Today’s liberal visionrnof common folk clamoring “empowerment” via the vote isrnmuch overdrawn; extension of the suffrage was often “topdown.”rnThe modern, centralized bureaucratic state andrnplebiscitary elections are, by necessity, intimately connected.rnTo Napoleon III and Bismarck the freshly enfranchised voterrnwas the compliant participant in their push toward unified staternNOVEMBER 1996/11rnrnrn